ATLANTA — A Falcons punter is never safe in a game against the New Orleans Saints.
Steve Gleason's iconic blocked punt against Atlanta in the Saints' first game back after Hurricane Katrina is memorialized in a statue outside the Superdome. Michael Mauti, the son of a Saints special-teamer and a local high school standout, earned his place in New Orleans lore by blocking a punt for a touchdown in 2015.
When Alex Okafor crashed through the line and blocked Matt Bosher's punt in a tight game in Atlanta Sunday, the Saints should have known good things were to come in a 43-37 overtime win over their hated rivals.
"I guess I didn't think about it at the time, but now that you mention it, good things happen after that," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said.
Okafor's blocked punt was a little different than Gleason's or Mauti's. For starters, it wasn't returned for a touchdown, although Craig Robertson's 12-yard return set up a touchdown pass from Brees to Cameron Meredith that gave the Saints a 23-21 lead midway through the third quarter.
And unlike Gleason or Mauti, special teams is not Okafor's specialty.
A starter at defensive end, Okafor is only in the game on punt return for one call.
"It was a 'safe' call," Okafor said. "They put some big guys in there and let us do our thing while everybody else does their thing."
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Saints fans greet the team at the airport after its big win vs. Atlanta. Video via Thomas Morstead.
A "safe" call on a punt return is a conservative call, a play set up neither to go for the block or to try to set up a big return.
Okafor's remarkable rush gave the Saints a big play anyway.
"I don't have any other responsibility on that package," Okafor said. "On punt, you essentially get to go against linebackers and tight ends, so I'm going to go rush against them."
Okafor's blocked punt may not have been by play design, but this New Orleans coaching staff has always felt the Saints would give punters trouble this season.
ATLANTA — Terron Armstead wouldn't agree with the premise of the question.
Veteran special teams coach Mike Westhoff, brought in a year ago to lend his expertise to special teams coordinator Bradford Banta, has spent all of training camp and the first two weeks of the season telling anybody who will listen that his team can get after punters.
Westhoff's belief turned into reality at a key moment on Sunday.
“There’s times when we rush a punter and times where, all of a sudden, we block a punt," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "I think that it is a lot of confidence in our teams, and I think that players feed off of moments like that to help you win the game."
Especially when those moments come against the Falcons.